Who Pays for the Transport Costs of School Choice?

My University of Minnesota colleague Elizabeth Wilson lives on the quintessential neighborhood street in St. Anthony Park (St. Paul). While riding her bike to work she was sucking diesel exhaust from four different school buses running down her street; these four buses were taking kids to four different elementary schools. She thought about the transport and environmental implications of such; she corralled Julian Marshall and me (and others) to do a study. Not surprisingly, we found (and quantified) that school choice had some environmental (and other) implications. Now, what can we do with this information?

In a didactic post that ends by telling people not to be sanctimonious, my co-author and fellow streets.mn contributor, David Levinson, recently shared insights and cutting perspectives about school choice. His arguments prized educational diversity, sometimes at the expense of transport costs or other aspects, and they are hard to disagree with.

Should all schools be interchangeable? How about teachers? All else being equal, most will agree it’s better to serve a child’s individual educations needs with more tailored learning. But when these needs (or desires) increase transport miles, who is responsible for paying for these side effects? When public dollars are at stake, should the school district be picking up this tab?

There’s a lot to this story. (As the Dude in the Big Lebowski put it) school choice is a complicated case (You know, a lotta ins, lotta outs, lotta what-have-you’s). As the issue is about the education of our offspring, it evokes strong emotions. Pareto optimum solutions to the school choice issue probably don’t exist. But, as there’s more complexity to this issue than most people realize, here’s to starting a multi-post series to drill deeper into dimension of school choice and travel.

Transport logistics dictate a lot about how school districts operate. And, many school districts devote a surprising amount of their budget to supporting the transport dimensions of school choice. Maybe they should; maybe they shouldn’t. But now right many do and Minneapolis Public Schools spend more than your average bear. Nationally, transport costs average about 5% of a school district’s budget[1]; when school choice is catered to, the proportion of costs escalate from there. These obviously are public dollars and they accrue more than most people realize.

Minneapolis and St. Paul school districts are roughly the same size with roughly the same number of students. But, owing to policy differences, school buses used to travel more than twice as many miles per day in Minneapolis than in St. Paul in 2008 (10.6 versus 4.8 million miles per year)[2]. What was the difference? The school districts had different policies regarding pickup distance. Minneapolis provided bus service to children living 0.5 mile or more from school, while St. Paul used to provide service for students living over one mile from school; they’ve since changed that. Minneapolis had more generous commitments to transporting children to non-neighborhood schools. While both were required to offer transportation options for charter schools in the district, back then, Minneapolis did so for a greater number of schools.

Putting aside specifics of the figures, who is responsible for paying for the differences in the transport miles? The school district’s transport budget (therefore the taxpayers)? Or should these costs be  privatized? Minneapolis Public Schools seems to think that school choice is  important and are willing to pay for it. Relatively speaking, a lot of it. By doing so, the district is providing a service that makes budgeting more difficult. Fuel prices are relatively volatile and can disproportionately affect a school district’s budget.

Furthermore, assuming that appropriated school budgets are closed systems, then dollars devoted to  transport are dollars not spent in the classroom. This raises the possibility of diverting ‘supposed’ transport dollars to enhanced (and tailored?) educational delivery to neighborhood schools.

If kids (and parents) are going to bypass their closest school (or two or three closest schools) in favor of a heightened educational experience elsewhere, is there a sound justification for using public tax dollars to pay for the costs these decisions bear to the environment (and society)? The next post will discuss the policy levers in play in school choice and school transport discussions.

[1] Nationally, the average annual transport cost per student is approaching $500, see: http://nces.ed.gov/programs/coe/indicator_cmb.asp

[2] While needing update, 2008 was when we collected data.

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19 Responses to Who Pays for the Transport Costs of School Choice?

  1. Matty Lang
    Matty Lang March 3, 2015 at 1:37 pm #

    This is very important and interesting work, Kevin. Thank you for sharing it here.

    It’s extra interesting to me as I recently sent in my daughter’s kindergarten application to SPPS on which I had to rank our top two school choices. I’ve believed for a long time that certain urban schools lag in measures like test scores (in part) because the families with the most advantage and means are allowed to actively avoid them through school choice policies creating a self fulfilling policy.

    On the other hand, I’m impressed with the results of foreign language immersion schools and would like to take advantage of giving my daughter the immersion advantage. Lucky for me, the Mandarin Immersion school in SPPS happens to be housed in our neighborhood school building so I might be able to have my cake and eat it too.

    Unfortunately, it could be moved away from our neighborhood school location at some point in the future which would be a huge disappointment.

  2. jeffk March 3, 2015 at 2:14 pm #

    I think Prof. Levinson and others that advocate for broad school choice policies are approaching the issue with a lot of idealism. Sure, maybe there’s a few six year olds who so desperately want to learn Chinese that they need to go to a particular charter school.

    But I’d bet that 90% of school choice is just allowing those with means to avoid bad schools, and this is a disincentive to just fixing them (“well, they could just choose to go somewhere else”). We’re talking about elemantary schools here. what 90% of kids need is a quality experience learning to read and do math, and one that they can walk or bike to (the advantage of that autonomy being hard to quantify for their development). Elementary schools should be largely interchangeable, and it should be taken as a warning sign if they’re not.

    • Rosa March 3, 2015 at 9:15 pm #

      It’s been 5 years since we chose, but I’m pretty sure this is just about public schools, not charters. Charter school parents generally have to arrange transportation on their own.

      And for us at least, our choices didn’t involve any non-bus options. The two closest schools to us are both across Bloomington Avenue, and even if kids are within the walking distance, if they have to cross a busy street they get the bus – because the district doesn’t trust drivers to stop. And they’re right. My friend who walks her daughter to the closest school (Bancroft) routinely sees cars veering around crossign guards and cutting through/around groups of schoolkids crossing at the marked crosswalk directly in front of that quite large school.

      • Moe March 4, 2015 at 6:45 am #

        Rosa, I’m fairly certain most charters offer transportation, they might even have to (at for the city they are in)

        • Rosa March 4, 2015 at 12:56 pm #

          I don’t have firsthand experience, because we only looked at public schools, but the charter school parents I know all drive their kids.

          • Moe March 4, 2015 at 12:59 pm #

            Oh sure, I’m sure it’s very common especially when crossing borders. But for example, Nova offers busing to any student living in St. Paul, but not for Minneapolis. Yinghua offers busing all over the metro area, but only from certain pickup spots.

            The German Immersion school does not offer busing and I believe they have to have the parents sign a waiver saying they agree to that. Not 100% positive about that though.

            • Rosa March 6, 2015 at 5:40 pm #

              I didn’t know that! Like I said, we never considered charter schools (just the number of public schools in our zone in Minneapolis was plenty enough choice to cause choice paralysis) so I just assumed having to cover transportation was part of the charter/public tradeoff.

  3. David Levinson
    David Levinson March 3, 2015 at 2:30 pm #

    JeffK – Who is being idealistic? We already have another school choice mechanism, moving. The alternative to going to a bad neighborhood school is not making that school better (which will take years at best), it is moving to a better neighborhood. The alternative of school choice allows parents to stay in the city instead of move to the suburbs or pay for private school.

    • mplsjaromir March 3, 2015 at 4:04 pm #

      This is so anti-democratic. Neo-liberal charter school enthusiasts don’t care that they are abandoning the majority of inner-city children, but I am sure most don’t believe that inner-city children are capable of learning. The laissez-faire attitude that ‘good schools’ will attract students while the ‘bad schools’ will adjust is sickening. Schools should focus on teaching children, not competing for students.

      • Adam Miller
        Adam Miller March 3, 2015 at 10:45 pm #

        That is really the fundamental issue. Are you really “improving” anything by making a “school” out of the best students from a bunch of other schools?

        Is that in anyway repicable? What competitive response can the non-selective schools implement?

        • Moe March 4, 2015 at 6:47 am #

          Adam, I’d like to know what schools you are talking about, cause it’s certainly not many that I’ve ever seen. Even the “top” school in Longfellow is 50% free or reduced lunch, diversity that matches the community, and high percentage of special needs kids.

  4. Moe March 3, 2015 at 2:43 pm #

    I live in Longfellow and we looked at 3 MPS schools that are all in our zone, the farthest being a whopping 3 miles away, but we also looked at the german immersion school in St Paul which does not offer busing, so we’d have to drive the 7 miles there. All 4 schools have different start times, different curriculum, different grades in the school, different student teacher ratios, different focuses, and different after school programs.

    I have no idea what my point is, but sometimes school choice isn’t just about picking a school that has the best test scores.

    Oh, and school choice might not even have been the cause of those 4 buses driving down the block if 2 were charter schools and another was a private school along with a traditional public school.

  5. Shaina B March 3, 2015 at 5:06 pm #

    “We already have another school choice mechanism, moving.”

    Really? All choices are not created equal. Moving, especially with children, is not an easy option enjoyed most people in our community of ever-widening income inequality. Also, moving ones home and children away from one’s history, family and friends for a better school should not be a choice people are forced to make. The social and cultural costs are huge.

    Also, “The alternative to going to a bad neighborhood school is not making that school better (which will take years at best)…”

    Making any school, especially an elementary school, better does not need to take years. We know what works: Low student to teacher ratios, additional support staff such as social workers and mental health workers, quality, thoughtful and multicultural music and art programming. With these adequately in place, schools can- and do- improve almost immediately. I hate when we pretend a problem is too complicated to solve- quality education for everyone is not impossible, it is about priorities. Quite frankly, we, including you, need to first want to end the institutionalized racism that allows us to throw our hand up in helplessness at the thought of providing a good education for every child.

  6. Dana DeMaster
    DanaD March 3, 2015 at 5:16 pm #

    I’m surprised you didn’t mention the Strong Schools, Strong Communities intiative in St. Paul. That has a larger impact on bussing than anything mentioned in this article. Prior to the 2013-2014 school year, families in Saint Paul could choose any school in the entire district and have bussing provided if families lived a certain distance from their chosen school (I believe the mile you mention). I had seven school busses pass my house daily. The goal of the Strong Schools, Strong Communities was to create more neighborhood based schools as many of the schools were more racially and economically segregated than the neighborhoods surrounding them. Aside from achievement and racial segregation, another huge factor was bussing costs. Families can still attend any school in the district, but priority are given to children in that school’s zone and if the family lives outside the zone they have to provide their own transportation.

    I have not seen any evaluation results yet, but it is still very early being that it’s only in its second year. The district is claiming that it has impacted test scores and other achievement measures for some schools, particularly junior highs which previously were only grades 7 and 8 and are now 6 through 8. I haven’t seen any evaluation of effects of the change in transportation, besides that it did reduce costs.

    As a parent of a kindergartner (who attends a charter, I will get to that in a minute), I do know anecdotally some of the impacts from friends and our day care provider. Most families I know didn’t change schools – they started driving their kids. Not carpooling, not bussing. Driving individually and changing work and family schedules to do so. People are attached to their schools and they are not interchangable. This will change as these children age-out into junior highs and high schools and younger kids start kindergarten, but for now, a lot of people I know are driving.

    Another impact is on day cares and child care choices. My child care provider cannot walk children the four blocks to the school in her neighborhood. If children from the immediate neighborhood attend her day care and want to attend the neighborhood school, the family has to find a way to walk their children there. Yes, it’s four blocks, but we’re talking about 4 and 5 year olds here (the school offers preschool). No parent is going to allow their preschooler to walk four blocks alone to school. So, either they attend a non-neighborhood school and get bussed from day care, or, as some parents at our day care did, move their day care to be closer to their chosen school, but far enough away to get bussed. Complicated algebra there as parents are not only weighing school characterstics, but also cost of day care, quality of day care, and their work hours and schedules.

    I heartily disagree with mplsjaromir regarding parents who chose charters. I do not believe that poor children or children of color are incapable of learning. It was a difficult decision to weigh the many possible benefits of our neighborhood school (which my son attended in preschool) – great principal, very close to home, the value of learning and growing up in an environment with such amazing diversity of race, creed, economics, etc., versus the charter we ultimately went with. It’s difficult and personal to weigh the macro policy impacts of our individual choices against the impact on my children. It also shows a lot of hubris to think my white, upper middle class family will somehow have an impact one way or another on my neighborhood school. Then again, if 50 families like mine make a certain choice, it matters. It’s not because poor families or children of color can’t learn or don’t want to learn or whatever, but I have the luxury of time and resources to share that parents working two minimum wage jobs don’t. Parent involvement in schools matters – but hopefully that’s all parents.

    Our charter is in St. Paul, but is 5 miles away. My son takes the bus, adding to the busses in our neighborhood. But, transportation was just one of many factors and this school fit our needs best. And, schools don’t have to be competing – their success is information enough. Only 8 percent of applicants will get a kindergarten spot in our school and they don’t advertise or go to school fairs, etc. Maybe they should as a way to increase the diversity of applicants?

    We’re invested in our neighborhood. We don’t want to move four miles away, even in the same city. Yes, school choice, increases the likelihood that bak fiets owning, bike most everywhere, single car familes who love the city will stay.

    Not sure what my point is either other than that:
    1) Strong Schools, Strong Communities happened in the time period you are looking at and it deserves at least mention
    2) School choice is a lot more complicated than just transportation or city school=bad, charter=good.

    • Dana DeMaster
      DanaD March 3, 2015 at 5:18 pm #

      Oh, one more thing. I see a lot of very involved families who love the idea of city neighborhood schools run like hell when their children hit junior high. We decided to get ahead of that and just go for a k-12 charter right away.

      • Matty Lang
        Matty Lang March 4, 2015 at 11:19 am #

        Dana,

        Thanks for the great perspective and information. I’m wondering what you mean by families running like hell when their children hit junior high? Are Saint Anthony Park and Highland middle schools like scenes out of the movie, Lean On Me?

        http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Lean_on_Me_(film)

        • Dana DeMaster
          DanaD March 4, 2015 at 1:43 pm #

          Many of my friends with junior high and high school children have been very happy with their elementary education experience at SPPS. Then, they look at the social factors of the junior high and high schools and leave. There are classes at Central with 50 or more kids. The best articulation of the issue was that while many kids do succeed in the higher grades, they have to create an environment where that’s possible, they have to seek out opportunity. Those parents want an environment where kids don’t have to seek out opportunity or advocate for programming – they want the entire environment to support success. So they leave. As a friend put it, “My brown-skinned children will have to fight for success in SPPS, fight to avoid the “bad crowd.” I don’t want them to have to fight.” I don’t know the truth of any of that, but it’s certainly the perception.

          • Matty Lang
            Matty Lang March 4, 2015 at 1:46 pm #

            Thanks again, Dana.

  7. Eric Saathoff
    Eric S March 3, 2015 at 9:27 pm #

    It should be noted that this Strong Schools, Strong Communities was an effort to step toward neighborhood schools and away from school choice and magnets as a way to desegregate. To do this, the district made several “attendance areas,” which can be seen here: http://www.spps.org/map_of_school_locations

    The size and shape of these areas is very interesting (like gerrymandering?), and the goal was to show that the city is already desegregated enough to allow less busing and not undermine the desegregation effort. The NAACP thinks that Strong Schools, Strong Communities has actually lead to a resegregation of St. Paul’s schools:
    http://www.naacp-stpaul.org/Resources/Documents/NAACP%20School%20Board%20Statement.pdf
    http://www.naacp-stpaul.org/Resources/Documents/NAACP%20Issues%20with%20SPPS%20Plan.pdf

    I personally support neighborhood schools as I don’t believe that the public school system can solve all of society’s ills, such as a segregated city. I believe we are better off strengthening neighborhood bonds and teaching children to walk/bike to school.
    I also, however, teach at one of the city-wide magnets because I believe in interesting education choices, such as Montessori and language immersion. It is all a difficult balance.

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